51: perihelion, a close catch
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“Little kitten…” Yang Rong catches up in large strides, his military boots swishing over a puddle of water. “Do you really have to be like this? What have I done wrong for you to be so angry?”

“Eyes on the road, ten feet apart and no unnecessary chatter,” Noah replies flippantly. “Else I’d much prefer we head our separate ways.”

Yang Rong promptly stops talking – thank the deities because the man had been rambling nonstop for the past… day. From late last night to early this morning to now, late afternoon, Colonel Yang Rong is exceptionally skilled at making his presence known. Noah had fallen asleep to a monologue of magazines and city foods, then one of alcohol and cigarettes, then of some other grand escapade weaved into epic fantasy battlefield tales – all of them merely personal, distorted anecdotes of the colonel’s self-proclaimed greatness.

Countless anecdotes and none of them of any significance whatsoever. Noah had gauged the colonel to be talkative but not this talkative. Noah also belatedly acknowledges that this particular travel companion has zero filter and zero useful thoughts to contribute. If not for the man’s admittedly bruiser physique, Noah has no doubt he’d toss him down a ditch somewhere and leave him to be avian food.

They walk on a continuous straight road, passing through broken-down homes, rusty old fences, toppled vehicles – old models with their engines confiscated or blown up via radiation. There is nothing but more… nothingness that is left of a plundered village. The trees here are stripped of leaves. A few hundred miles south of the tundra and there’d be no flora to note.

“Do you often go out like this?” Yang Rong comments as he walks not ten feet apart from him, but exactly one inch apart, bumping into his shoulder now and then for attention. And Colonel Yang is keen on getting attention, leaning over to him any chance he could get. Warm breaths are felt by the side of his neck. “There is a reason civilians are prohibited from venturing in daylight hours. Haven’t you seen all the quarantine news, Noah? We do have regulations.”

“Not a regulation that is very well regulated,” Noah finally replies. “The government hardly cares if slum residents leave their concrete bunkers.”

“And you are a resident of the slums?” Colonel Yang sends over a soft smirk. “It is very unsuitable, Noah. Why don’t you come with me instead?”

“I am unwilling.”

The past week has seen eerily intermittent rainfall despite it being wintertime. Early January and already, the climate seems harbinger of early spring. Sunset weather is capricious even this far away from Earth’s equator – the temperature itself is freezing cold, but where any slivers of residue light reach ground level, Noah feels certain lightheadedness from simply looking.

A darkened cloud parts overhead to allow a stream of ray. It dithers across the macadam road, snakes through jaded pebble stones, makes its way to Noah’s combat boots and up his body. A small gust of wind billows by and sweeps the hood of his jacket, the fur ruff falling down to his shoulders. He pauses in motion.

Sunset. The rays are golden orange, gorgeous even as they consume everything in their wake. Noah stands still as the beams outline the ends of his winter parka, his silhouette, the slender shape of his neck and then up his face. He is made of translucence so ethereal he hardly looks human. A ghostly apparition. Spectral silver hair.

His skin tone, too, is only a few chromas more saturated than his hair. Noah raises a hand and watches as the light almost reflects off his palm. He’s lost in some strange reverie. His expression is of inscrutable apathy. He must’ve stared too long when Yang Rong walks in front of him and blocks the sunlight.

The man reaches over and puts his hood back on, patting out the fur trim.

“I mean it,” Colonel Yang tells him, tucking every single strand of his hair inside the hood as well. “Don’t be directly exposed to sunlight, Noah. You may already be infected, but there is a high possibility of corruption and further mutation. Be good and listen to me, hm?”

Noah looks at him after a while and hums simply. “Mn.”

“What are you thinking about?” The man asks as he takes Noah’s hand as well, putting it inside the parka pocket. Yang Rong flashes a teasing smirk, his green eyes twinkling underneath the hood of his military jacket and peeking out between raven-black hair. “You’re already pretty enough without needing to flaunt under sunset, little kitten. I am very well aware.”

“It is still bearable for a few decades or even centuries,” Noah says without acknowledging the comment. “Another unprecedented geomagnetic flip and perhaps humans will go extinct.”

“Oh?” Yang Rong listens in intrigue. “Do you have an estimate?”

“Impossible,” Noah says with a shake of his head. “I am not a prophet.”

“Neither am I,” the man chuckles. “As a realist, I do not delve in these clairvoyant topics. It doesn’t quite bother me either.”

Noah sighs softly. “Solar winds are at its highest right about now. We should be at perihelion.”

“Yet more talk I do not understand, Noah. It really is true that we don’t function within the same wavelength.” Another low chuckle before Yang Rong says, his voice lowered to poignancy, “I find it very regrettable that you don’t live in the Nexus. What do you think about being a scientist, Noah?”

A matter-of-fact reply. “I am an omega.”

“I know,” the colonel says. Then his voice turns sotto voce. “Sometimes I don’t want you to be one.”

Noah’s eyebrows crease inward. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I think I’ve…” Colonel Yang lets out a low, shuddering sigh. An interesting range of emotions dither across the man’s face. First hesitance then resignation and then… even more interestingly, his facial features go under some sort of epileptic seizure, the color of his eyes flickering per each twitch. Then, even more interestingly and very surprisingly, Yang Rong smacks himself with his palms and groans out, “I’ve gone insane?”

Noah, entirely confused, watches the apoplexy. It really is amusing, however, that the colonel continues to plant his face onto his palms while muttering strings of incoherent words. The titian sunset only makes Yang Rong look more flustered, and while there is no actual blush on his cheek, there is bound to be some on his nose bridge with how intensely he’s rubbing at it.

Another groan and Yang Rong repeats, “Crap, I’ve gone insane…”

Just then, a gentle chuckle is carried along light wind. Noah’s eyes curve up in amusement. Dazzlingly bright sapphire, imperial topaz with a sparkle of marigold. His lips curve to match. A genuine smile and the first that Yang Rong’s seen – pretty rosed lips, the corners lifting up, and then there’s the small, attractive mole below the jut of his vermillion.

“Amazing,” Noah chuckles again. There is always some musicality to the way he speaks – soft, airy, a note of lethargy. His laugh is even more… breathlessly magnetic. “Although I am unsure of your thought process as per usual, it really is the most worthwhile thing you’ve said all day, Colonel Yang. Quite pleasing to hear.”

Glossed in late afternoon sunset, Noah has certain charm that makes him softer than usual. Lethargic and indescribably angelic. For a person with such a normally deadpan expression, his smile is all the more radiating. Colonel Yang stares far too long, following the curl of his lips up to the crescents of his eyes.

Noah, aware of the gape, only tilts his head in response, the smile fading into a more subtle quirk. “Hm? What are you looking at that is so interesting?”

“…” Yang Rong blinks slowly. Once, twice, and then he opens his mouth to say, “…Fuck.”

Noah raises a brow.

“…No, not you,” Yang Rong says while massaging his nose bridge again. The faint flush on his upper cheek is hidden very carefully by his hand. “…Well, yes, but not in the way that holds a negative connotation—little kitten, please don’t smile like that without warning, alright?”

“…” Noah’s face instantly schools back into cold impassivity. He turns around and continues to walk, ignoring the crackbrain on the road. “Understood, Colonel Yang. I also found your sudden seizure hard on the eyes. I’ve come to a conclusion that I like your face at nighttime more—when I don’t see it as clearly.”

“…I didn’t mean it like that.”

Colonel Yang strides to catch up again and this time, even less than an inch apart from him. This time, not only do their shoulders brush but Yang Rong actively slides his hand down to Noah’s wrist, latching onto him gently. Perhaps Noah would’ve brushed him off any other day but sue him if he’s taken aback by how closely Yang Rong leans forward.

Two centimeters apart, their noses just about touching. When Yang Rong speaks, his breaths linger on sensitive skin.

“Don’t be angry?” he says. “I was only overtaken by how cute you are.”

His words travel in sotto voce, just as soft as the shimmer on his face. There is little foliage where they stand in the middle of an abandoned road, but Noah is taken into a more foresty place – verdant green eyes that are dim and shadowed by the hood of his jacket, yet they captivate all the same. Noah briefly wonders when the colonel had begun to talk so flirtatiously… or perhaps he himself hadn’t been paying much attention.

If not for the unbridled sincerity in his tone, Noah would have passed it as another one of his aggravatingly teasing comments. Now, he is unsure of what to make of Colonel Yang, utterly brainless alpha, egotistic Neanderthal… with an increasingly tolerable personality.

That is, until Yang Rong proceeds to probe further, cupping a side of his cheek and pinching lightly at the blossoming pink. The colonel resumes his characteristic smirk with added playfulness and comments, “Oh? Your blushing face is even more—"

Noah turns away and walks off, pulling his hand away from the colonel’s grasps. He pulls the hood tighter over his head and doesn’t say a single word.

“Hmm? Where are you going?” Yang Rong walks after him again. This time, thankfully, he gives Noah some personal space, though his mouth doesn’t stop blabbering. “I mean where are you actually going, Noah? You haven’t told me your destination and I’ve been cluelessly following you for the past hour… Hm? Why aren’t you speaking to me anymore? Are you really so easily angered…?”

As the sun draws lower to the horizon, the clouds amass in darkish blobs. Five minutes later and the orange starts settling into violets and blues. Ahead of them are abandoned old homes, browned-out grass and empty remnants of civilization. The temperature is already considerably colder.

“Fine, fine, I won’t call you fickle anymore, but is it really alright to treat your Rong-ge like this?” the man continues to speak. “I’ve only called you cute, alright?! Would you prefer another synonym though I’m certain my vocabulary is not as vast as—"

“It will be nighttime soon,” Noah says as he breathes into his hands, trying to warm up. “Perhaps then, we can catch the borealis.”

Without waiting for a response, he takes a turn to the left. His gait is purposefully slowed so the other man can catch up – Noah doesn’t need to confirm when he can hear footsteps trailing close behind him, the same military boots crinkling across gravel.

“Little kitten…” Yang Rong’s voice holds semblance of a smile. “I have zero clue what that means but I will certainly catch it for you.”